The propaganda war brings death

Dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz talks to prof. Iryna Ivanova about the war in Ukraine, Russian propaganda and cooperation between the University of Gdańsk and Kharkiv National University of Economics

- Let me ask you this straight: what does the war with Russia mean for Ukrainians?

- This is a terrible tragedy, there are no words to describe it. It is a horrifying situation for all Ukrainians, for every family. My beautiful Kharkiv lies in ruins, there is no city centre, no small towns around - almost all destroyed. But it is also a personal tragedy for every Ukrainian - every death of a child, woman, or soldier. Mr Aleksander, a close friend of mine who fought against Russia in the first war, has had four concussions and is now unable to fight. He now lives in Lębork, he helps refugees and every day he tells me that he 'wants to go to the sea', which in the common language of soldiers means to commit suicide... You have to talk to him every day, because he absolutely wants to go to fight, and he is a disabled person. There is not a single family in Ukraine that has not been affected by the war with Russia. No one could even imagine that in the 21st century, it is possible to use such violence and commit such terrible crimes. And this is violence not only against Ukraine but also against the whole of Europe.

- Why, from your perspective, is the current war a threat to the whole of Europe, including Poland?

- This threat is very real. Already in the summer of 2021, when I was in talks with prof. Małgorzata Łosiewicz, director of the Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Communication at the University of Gdańsk, about cooperation with Kharkiv National Economic University, I mentioned that there would be a big problem with Russian disinformation. I deal with propaganda as a researcher and during my research I found Russian groups called 'Our Gdańsk' on Facebook and Telegram - in Russian, of course [this refers to Russian groups of so-called trolls in social media: on Facebook and Telegram - note B. Cz.-D.], spreading disinformation and Putin's propaganda. They have already started a fight - for the time being, a propaganda fight - for a 'Russian' Gdańsk. I sent these materials to Polish students in Gdańsk so that they would be prepared for such an information war and understand that Russian propaganda works in Europe and can be more and more effective, it will drill into the rock - drop by drop. That is why I thought that cooperation between our universities was important. And now it has turned out to be even more important... My students have stayed in Ukraine, some are fighting, others are preparing reports on the war and sending them, among others, to Poland.

- Introducing fake news into the public space, blocking information channels, 'bombarding' with propaganda - this is also a war machine. Is it as dangerous as warfare? 

- The propaganda war brings death. When it becomes visible in the public space, it means that a physical confrontation may soon follow as well. I work with control groups that track information on social media, including Telegram. I carefully analyse the content posted there. I talk to friends from Russia, yes, I have friends there, although our relations are becoming more and more difficult. I recently read an account from a Russian family who went to the Second World War Museum in Gdańsk at the weekend and were delighted with the presentation of Russia's military might. She happily wrote that 'they can repeat it'. And they are repeating it. The Russians live in their own information bubble, with little or no access to information from media independent of Putin's propaganda. What is more, they do not want to know, they do not search, they do not listen. This is the propaganda effect of social change. For the most part, Russians have come to believe that everything outside the borders of their country is hostile: Europe, the US, Ukraine. Everyone lies, and only the Russians know some secret truth. This is perhaps the most terrible effect of propaganda and disinformation.

- Changes in mentality?

- Let me tell you a story. Already after our conversation, when I authorized the interview, my friends from Russia called me, scientists - Russian intellectuals. They said they had to get drunk to call me... because they are not able to talk to me sober. About what they saw in Bucza, Borodzianka because when they look for information, they find it. Russian censorship is not that tight. They read and watched interviews that journalism and social communication students from the University of Gdańsk had conducted with me, and then posted them on university websites, including the Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Communication of the University of Gdańsk. Somehow they found these conversations, it's amazing! These Russians cried when I told in the interviews about Kharkiv being destroyed, bombs falling day and night, attacks on defenceless people, murders, all this great misery. They know me, they believe me, and they know I am not lying. They have been very apologetic to me, they feel guilty and devastated. But it seems to me that there are not many such people. Russians are surrounded by lies. Day after day, the authorities create small myths that make up the great myth of great Russia and the army - the liberators. It is very difficult to change this, so it is better not to allow such changes in social mentality caused by propaganda.

- How?

- Active media education is very necessary. We need special training in fact-checking, fake news, the mechanisms of manipulation, propaganda, the mechanisms of the media, and the influence of technology on the information content we receive. This is not particularly difficult, but of course, the educational process is long, and it is worth starting as early as possible, already at school. But now it is necessary to start with journalists, to teach them how to select information, to distinguish facts from manipulation, which is only seemingly simple. The mechanisms of manipulation are cleverly concealed, and true information is so integrated with the falsehood that it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. This is why the fact-checking competition organised by the Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Communication at the University of Gdańsk fits in so well with these educational activities. But there are more such activities, they are carried out by bloggers and social activists, and everyone should be encouraged to participate in such training and workshops.

- Has the West been too soft and compliant towards Vladimir Putin in recent decades? Have we created a myth that we have come to believe? A lot of media attention has been given to the attitude of former US President George Bush junior, who in 2001, after meeting the Russian leader in Ljubljana, said that he looked into his eyes and saw a soul there, although Senator John McCain warned that he saw only three letters in Putin's eyes: the KGB.

- World leaders probably did not realise that they were dealing with a maniac who is still mentally stuck in the nineteenth century and dreams of a new fatherland war. I think that modern European politicians, who are trying to solve ecological problems in their countries, who are dealing with issues of equality, human rights and the global economy, are not able to understand Putin's thinking. He has completely different problems - he wants to acquire as much land as possible to rebuild Russian imperialism and he wants to reclaim all the land that ever belonged to the Soviet Union. I am afraid that without European solidarity, NATO will not be able to defend either Ukraine or Poland from Putin's madness, because he knows no borders and human life means nothing to him.

- Were the Ukrainians able to take advantage of their time after the so-called perestroika?

- Of course, Ukraine did not take all its chances, but the current war is the result of very many complex causes. Putin 'earned' for this war by selling gas, coal and oil to Europe and the world. He made European economies dependent on Russia's fossil fuels. As a consequence, he decided that Europe and its leaders were weak and therefore it was OK to start a war because with the weak you can win.

- Has the war with Russia rebuilt a sense of Ukrainian identity?

- Not only rebuilt but also strengthened. We were talking about Polish-Ukrainian history, but Ukrainians also have a common history with Russians, family, social and professional ties. I am a media expert, and I used to work in Polish-Ukrainian scientific teams. Now they no longer exist. Many people who were pro-Russian in Ukraine before the war are now fighting against Russia. For example, my friend, a well-known musician, Vera Litovchenko, who now records classical music concerts in her basement. She streams them through social media and raises money for Ukrainian soldiers in the process. There is hardly any pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine today. Political feuds over President Volodymyr Zelensky and the European Union have subsided, and in this fight, we are a common Ukrainian nation.

- Volhynia, Bandera, Operation Vistula - Polish-Ukrainian history is very difficult. Thanks to the attitude of Poles engaged in helping Ukrainians, are we able to overcome our difficult neighbourly relations?

- I will tell a story again. My friend Olga currently lives in the Kharkiv region. She is very grateful to the Poles for the help they give to the Ukrainians. She told me how happy they are to receive any humanitarian aid from Poland - clothes, food, toys for children, medicines. But also simple conversations, gifts - this is great psychological support, giving them strength to survive this terrible time. Poles use the word 'refugees', I say 'fugitives', because they all fled in their pyjamas, at night, with one suitcase, sometimes with only documents or nothing at all. I am using these words to make everyone aware of how much human solidarity means at difficult moments. We have been building Polish-Ukrainian cooperation for a long time. The agreement between the University of Gdańsk and Kharkiv National University of Economics was planned much earlier, even before the war. Sadly, we have to start cooperation at such a difficult time. For three years now, we have been trying to look for the common history that unites our nations. Together with my students and Katarzyna Jeresko, we made a documentary film about the Polish officers murdered in Starobelsk. We found witnesses in Ukraine and Poland. We planned to come to Poland together this spring to record their memories and testimonies. In these woods, in these graves, lie also Ukrainians, victims of Russian purges. We must reject propaganda and political manipulation, and listen to what is common.

- What more can we do to make people understand what a terribly destructive force war is? Perhaps tell us how you rescued children from an oncology hospital in Kharkiv?

- This is just one episode of this war. We wrote on social media that the oncology ward for children was being bombed and help was needed. We managed to find a hospital in Israel that accepted the children without any unnecessary formalities and documents, they just started to be treated in safe conditions. Instead of more stories, I would like to thank my academic colleagues who have helped in contact with Israel, the Poles who show so much heart for the Ukrainians and take them in. To the Ukrainians who support each other. My husband came to pick me up at the Ukrainian border in his car, together with a friend. On the way, they picked up a Ukrainian family from Lugansk who had lost their house there. They later bought a house near Kyiv and have now also lost it. There was a young girl with this family who could barely drive, but her husband and his friend were very tired, so despite her stress and fear she got behind the wheel and drove. People can show big hearts and help each other, and that means that together we can win.

- I still believe that the war will end soon. Will Ukraine have a chance to rebuild itself?

- I wish I could say that it will. I come from Crimea. I lost my house thereafter the Russians occupied Crimea. I went to Kharkiv. I lost my home again. I would like to be able to go to Crimea to visit the graves of my grandparents and parents and to return to Kharkiv to the family graves. Only then will I feel that we have won. No one sees me crying, screaming in despair, because I have to live, work. I try to do it, to find the rhythm of everyday life. Compared to many of my compatriots, I'm very lucky because I live in Poland. My husband and I had plans to come to Poland for some time already, professionally. My husband is a computer scientist, I am an academic lecturer, and we had a good enough salary. I had this trivial dream of a small house with a garden and lots of flowers. I put those dreams on hold. For the time being, I work with students and derive great joy from it. We have many plans, including running a Russian language course for Polish journalists. Combined with media training on propaganda and manipulation, this is much needed. You have to fight, work and go on living, walking to victory step by step.

- Thank you for the interview.

The interview was conducted by dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz, Research Promotion Specialist, Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Communication, University of Gdańsk

Cooperation Kateryna Malyshevska, second-year Master's student of Journalism and Social Communication at the University of Gdańsk

Iryna Ivanova, born in 1972, was born in Crimea, from where she left after the occupation by Russians. She settled in Kharkiv. During the current war with Russia, she moved to Poland. She works with the University of Gdańsk. For fourteen years she had taught at the Department of Journalism of the Kharkiv State Academy of Culture, for three years she has been an associate professor at the Kharkiv National Economic University. Researcher, media educator and expert on journalism, propaganda and media manipulation. She conducts seminars, workshops and training on rhetorical art, communication techniques, copywriting, infodemics and fact-checking. Author of over seventy scientific articles and books in the field of social communication, propaganda, information wars, public journalism, media education and media history. Editor with many years of experience, among other publications and scientific journals: 'Intercultural Communication' and 'Language and History'. Volunteer, active in non-governmental organisations for media education.

dr Beata Czechowska - Derkacza